Maxie Dunnam:  Revival on the Horizon

Maxie Dunnam: Revival on the Horizon

Maxie Dunnam: Revival on the Horizon — 

Several years ago, the Good News Board of Directors met in Memphis, Tennessee, and bestowed the United Methodist Renewal Award on the Rev. Dr. Maxie Dunnam. In the previous issue of Good News, we published the first part of our conversation with him and touched upon his spiritual journey as local pastor, social activist, influential author, seminary president, and former world editor of The Upper Room.

Good News’ award is presented to a person that has demonstrated dedication to the renewal of Methodism. It was named after the late Rev. Edmund W. Robb Jr., an unforgettable evangelist and author who served as chairman of the Good News board of directors.

For the occasion of the award presentation in 2016, friends gathered at a Good News dinner at Christ United Methodist Church in Memphis. At the ceremony, the Rev. Rob Renfroe, president and publisher of Good News, accentuated Dunnam’s focus on a Christ-centered ministry, as well as his commitment to civil rights and education for underprivileged children. My colleague also touched upon Dunnam’s winsome disposition.

“When he steps up to a pulpit, within a few words people think to themselves, ‘I like that man. I’d like to be his friend. Or I wish he were my uncle.’ And when people like you, they listen to you and you have a real opportunity to influence them for Christ,” said Renfroe.

“And the reason people like Maxie is because you immediately get the impression that he likes you,” observed Renfroe, a long-time friend. “The reason you love Maxie is because you sense that he loves you.”

Maxie has had a great impact on Methodism because “people know that he cares,” said Renfroe. “So they have listened when he spoke, they have followed when he led, and they have given their time and their talents and their treasure when he has challenged them to a worthy cause.”

The award presentation also celebrated his influence as a faithful delegate to numerous United Methodist General Conferences, as well as his pivotal roles in helping create both the Confessing Movement and the Wesleyan Covenant Association.

“Maxie, by nature, is a lover with a heart of grace. But, there is a commitment to the truth of the gospel that has propelled him into the fray, at times reluctantly,” concluded Renfroe. “And for who he is and for all he has done, we honor him.”

In the previous issue of Good News, we spoke with Maxie about his childhood, call to ministry, his signature on the “Born of Conviction” statement, Bishop Gerald Kennedy, Brother E. Stanley Jones, and the mystery of prayer. What follows is the second-half of our colorful conversation.

– Steve Beard, editor of Good News


Because of the [previously discussed] “Born of Conviction” statement, you moved from Mississippi to California in the 1960s. That was a shift for your family.

I was excited about going to something new and fresh. One of our friends – who was not a signer of the “Born of Conviction” statement – was out in California. He had nurtured me in the ministry. We visited him six months before we went. We saw San Clemente and I said, Wouldn’t it be would it be wonderful to live in a place like this? That’s where I planted the church.

What did you learn spiritually on that journey?

I didn’t know anything about anything. That was another confirmation of God’s guidance in a way that you don’t even recognize it until it’s over.

The district superintendent had given us the name of two couples in San Clemente. That’s all we knew and those two couples just took us in and welcomed us. They were happy because they knew they were getting an evangelical pastor.

What that taught us at a deep level is that it really doesn’t matter where you go, God’s people are there – it’s a matter of getting connected with them. Not all of them are on the same level of the relationship, but they know themselves to be God’s people and that was confirmed.

After 10 years of ministry in Southern California, you moved your family to Nashville to work at The Upper Room. Big shift.

The Upper Room was a huge chapter in my life. That’s really when I became what I call a “world Christian.” How I got there is really a mystery. I had begun to lead some retreats and speaking at conferences.

I received a letter from Wilson O. Weldon, the world editor of The Upper Room, saying that they were starting a new ministry that was going to try to resource and engage the readership of The Upper Room – 4 million back then – as a prayer fellowship and get their energy directed.

I just felt, my Lord, I don’t know anything about that.

What year was this?

That would have been 1974. About the same time, I had been involved with some people in Mississippi who were friends and lay people committed on the racial issue – which was a rare kind of thing – and they had become involved with people in Maryland who had a retreat center. We had been in an interview to become the head of that retreat center. It was so attractive because my wife Jerry and I have had a faint, and sometimes passionate, desire to live in a deliberate Christian community. That’s been a thing that has stirred in me through the years and that would have been it.

That ends up being the most exciting thing that you never ended up doing. [laughter]

We got on the plane headed back to California. We hadn’t been in the air 30 minutes before we looked at each other and said, We can’t do that. We both had the same feeling.

It wasn’t but a couple of months later before we got this word from Wilson Weldon at The Upper Room. I think that I’m honest emotionally – and I always try to be honest with other people if I’m involved relationally – when they began to talk about me leading a prayer movement I just said to him, “Look I am not an expert in prayer and I think you’re talking to the wrong person.”

You felt like this was a mistake? 

I still have a letter that I wrote them on the plane going back to California telling them that I just didn’t think I was the person for that job because of my weakness in prayer.

The long and the short of it is that they called me and offered me the job. It’s one of the two or three times in my life when I accepted a position that I knew I was incapable of really performing. That’s also what I felt about becoming the president of Asbury Theological Seminary.

Every reader can relate to feeling inadequate. All you have to do is see the phrase “Prayer Specialist” and we all feel inadequate. We’re all amateurs, right?

That’s right. Absolutely.

There’s nothing that we are asked to do “spiritually” – and I put that in quotation marks – that we are capable of doing. We are equipped as we move along and as we are obedient. If we are obedient, we are equipped supernaturally.

That’s really what happened at The Upper Room. We need to be humble enough to recognize our deficiency, to confess it to those who are part of the responsible bodies, and trust that God has other instruments that he’s using to accomplish his will. When they invited me, I had to say, Well, they know what they need better than I do. Both Jerry and I felt that we should do it.

How did your name emerge at The Upper Room?

I tried to find out how in the world they had ever chosen to interview me for that job. Ira Galloway had become the General Secretary of the Board of Evangelism. Ira didn’t know me. And I knew Wilson at The Upper Room didn’t know me.

The General Board of Evangelism had a program where it sent young ministers to Mexico to preach revivals. I was one of the ten they sent to Monterrey, Mexico. The visiting preachers and our hosts would get together every morning for prayer and sharing before we started teaching and preaching at 10 o’clock in the morning. One of the guys on the team was from Texas. He is the one who told Ira, “Maxie is the guy you need to look at.”

Earlier, you used the phrase “world Christian.” What do you mean by that term?

Being in that position at The Upper Room, there is lots of travel involved because we had all these editions all over the globe. That was a tough part of the job, but it was a great part of the job. We visited the different editors all over the world and began to share life with them. For a country boy from Mississippi, California was an eye opener, but this was even beyond that.

I also began to see the expression of the gospel and the church in different ways – and how it was effective and not effective.

I met dynamic Christians – some of them world-class. I met Christians who were laboring in very difficult situations but were radiant and faithful. Some of that became clear when I traveled with Dr. Tom Carruth and Brother E. Stanley Jones at Ashram meetings.

[Editor’s note: Carruth taught on prayer at Asbury Theological Seminary and authored 15 books on the subject. He died in 1991. E. Stanley Jones (1884-1973), of course, was a historic international Christian leader who developed the Christian Ashram movement.]

I am who I am and I’ve done what I’ve done because there’s been three or four big occasions when I was called and I knew I was incapable – but I thought it was a genuine call and that I would be enabled to do the job. We’re enabled as we move out. The Upper Room was a big example of that.

You began at The Upper Room as the director of Prayer Life and Fellowship. You then became the world editor of The Upper Room daily devotional guide. It had a worldwide circulation in the millions at the time and was printed in 38 different languages.

When I went to The Upper Room I was responsible for the area of work that was related to the fellowship of prayer and developing resources. I wasn’t proficient in prayer or spiritual direction. I began to read everything I could read and talk to everybody I could talk to. As a result, I came in touch with the saints of the ages. I saw people in East Germany that were oppressed, but faithful. I saw the prophetic witness of Dr. Peter Storey and Bishop Desmond Tutu in South Africa. We saw the humble saints that were without fame – as well as those with well-known names. Both had deep commitments. I had a chance to be exposed to all kinds of people.

You once had a meeting with a very consequential man: Pope John Paul II.

I met Pope John Paul while I was the editor of The Upper Room and on the board of the World Methodist Council.

What struck you about him?

His humility. Pope John Paul knew he was under a heavy burden and a heavy responsibility but there was nothing haughty about him. Nothing. In fact, quite the opposite. The only reason my picture was taken with him was really accidental. Wherever the Pope goes, there are photographers. I didn’t even know that picture was taken. These photographers post those pictures on bulletin boards all over the place.

I’ve been thinking about Pope Francis, the current pontiff. He’s rare. I’m not sure he’s going to be as popular as others but sometimes he tickles me. I don’t see how a man could even function there – but they have to know that they’re the spiritual head of millions and millions of people.

Agreed. Switching to a different lane of leadership, let’s talk about how you became president of Asbury Theological Seminary.

Again, it was Tom Carruth. I had been invited to serve on the Asbury Seminary board after having been given an honorary degree. I was at Christ Methodist Church in Memphis and I got to know the Asbury community a little bit after being on the board. I discovered Asbury was a place I wish I had gone to for my own seminary education.

Jerry and I went to a meeting with the World Methodist Evangelism to England with Eddie Fox [longtime leader of World Methodist Evangelism] to dedicate the statue of John Wesley feeling his heart “strangely warmed.” We knelt at that statue and prayed. Three months later the Asbury presidency opened up. Six months later I was offered the job.

How did that come about?

I had resigned as chair of the presidential search committee. It was a time of obedience because we could not have been happier at Christ Church. It was dynamic. It was growing. Two of the greatest missional expressions that are going on in Memphis were birthed at Christ Church. It was just a great church and it was growing. The person that teetered me in the direction of being interested in the presidency was Jimmy Buskirk.

Dr. Jimmy Buskirk was a precious soul. He was the long time pastor of First United Methodist Church in Tulsa. He served on the Asbury Seminary board with you. He had also been the founding dean of the School of Theology at Oral Roberts University. 

I was happy at Christ Church but Jimmy came to see me and said, “Your ministry, Maxie, at Christ Church is a ministry of addition. If you become the president of Asbury, it’ll be a ministry of multiplication.”

He was right. Pivoting in a different direction, I am going to list some names. Give me your thoughts.

Bishop William R. Cannon (1916-1997).

I have a real love and attraction for people who are themselves – and don’t try to be anything else – but have some uniqueness that just sets them apart. Bishop Cannon was one of those people. When I went to Candler School of Theology in Atlanta, he was the Dean.

He would preach in chapel now and then and I remember two or three occasions when everybody would just remain, just linger – not talking to each other. Our relationship was very loving – it wasn’t formal. When I went to The Upper Room, we had dinner and he said, “Maxie, don’t stay there too long. You need to be preaching.”

Wise advice.

Yeah, beautiful. He didn’t pretend to be anything he wasn’t. But he did emphasize his eccentricities. He was the chair of the General Board of Evangelism. He gave a speech at the Confessing Movement. He was as orthodox as you can get. He was an evangelical – not in the popular sense of the word – but he really wanted people to be won to Christ. There’s a sense in which he really was a lot like Bishop Gerald Kennedy from California. Very different personalities. You never knew how they were going to express their passion.

Dr. William J. Abraham (1947-2021). Our dear Irish friend, Billy, who taught for ages at Perkins School of Theology in Dallas.

First, I felt he died too early. He was one of the best theological leaders we had – as smart as any of the theologians I knew, but he did not let that smartness keep him from communicating the gospel in an understandable way. Our friendship was really growing. We had been friends a long time, but I didn’t see him a lot. I’m sure he knew that I had become the president of Asbury Seminary when he was a primary candidate, but we never talked about it. I get the feeling that Billy would have loved to have been the president of Asbury Seminary. I think he was that kind of leader.

One more mutual friend: Dr. Thomas C. Oden (1931-2016) from Drew Theological School.

There’s a sense in which Tom was a little bit more of a churchman. Tom would have never been the communicator that Billy was  – I don’t think he ever was – but their theology is very much the same. They’re both brilliant. Both of them loved the academy – and championed the academy. I don’t think Tom ever wanted to be anything other than what he was.

Tom and Billy rarely faced a battle they weren’t willing to fight.

That’s right. Both of them were fighters but Billy was a feisty fighter. Tom was a conservative fighter.

Let’s talk about the launch of the Global Methodist Church.

I really have come to believe that the Global Methodist Church is an answer to prayer. It isn’t that we’ve been praying for a new denomination – we’ve been praying for revival. I’ve been a Methodist preacher longer than there’s been a United Methodist Church and I have been totally – maybe more than I should have been – committed to the United Methodist Church.

I’ve poured my life into that denomination and the World Methodist Council. I’ve been a part of Methodism and have fought the battles to conserve what the UM Church has always said she was in terms of how we define ourselves. I could have lived basically with the Book of Discipline of the UM Church the rest of my life, except I’d want to change some things about the bishops.

The obvious pattern of the church, it seems to me, developed a strong vocal, very influential liberal presence. That’s not just theological. There was a another group – not evangelical, really – we would really label as “centrist.” I really have been a part of that.

You would consider yourself a centrist?

I have, through the years.

These categories can be confusing, sometimes overlapping.

I’m clearly traditionalist now, but I think it’s because of my pastoral inclination of wanting people to be together. And then I saw the glaring violation of the Book of Discipline with one of our retired bishops performing a same-sex wedding ten years ago in Alabama, and the effort to liberalize the UM Church.

In the southeast, we always seemingly elected bishops that were different than that – we thought. I decided that something needed to happen. I didn’t think about it in terms of division, but I knew it had to be some sort of division and that happened to me at the 2019 special General Conference when the bishops brought the four ways forward.

The bishops themselves didn’t want to consider the traditional one – being what the UM church has said she is, but with more accountability for the episcopacy.

That’s the way I saw it. I left that General Conference just really down.

I had a small group of people scheduled to go to Cuba. There’s been a revival going on in Cuba for a long time. I really needed that and it was terrific. I’d been to Cuba before, but I’d never really experienced the depth of spirituality there.

The 2019 General Conference reaffirmed what we had affirmed the four years preceding but it turned into a shouting match. As you know, the Western Jurisdiction publicly announced that it was not going to abide by what we had decided. The bishops had come to the General Conference divided themselves.

Are you optimistic about the future?

I’m excited about the Global Methodist Church because I believe it is a great expression of revival. I think the structures are too great and the interest groups are too firmly established in the United Methodist Church. It could be a fresh start for everybody. It will give us an opportunity to really be serious about how we, as a body, are going to preach and teach and experience the Holy Spirit.

I believe we’re going to have a demonstrable revival.

Steve Beard is the editor of Good News. All of us at Good News are grateful for the Christian witness of our friend Maxie Dunnam. Photo: Anthony Thaxton. Used by permission.Maxie Du